A terribly tortured client complained about her feelings. Not a specific feeling. She simply hated the whole idea of feelings; they were inconvenient; bothersome. Not surprisingly, she was suicidally depressed, full of self hatred, and utterly confused by why she was so miserable.
There’s good news. She’s doing great now; cognitive therapy has helped her far more than all of the hospitalizations and medications. She’s come to understand that feelings are wonderful teachers and friends. Instead of repressing them she lives her life joyfully by respecting the wisdom they offer.
Her story comes to mind as I reflect on my trip (told in a previous post) to Meron. Instead of taking our car, I decided on public transportation (it was actually really nice!!). One major difference between going in a private car and public bus is that on a bus there are no bathroom breaks. Otherwise, the driver would be forced to pull over every second; tachlis, a three hour trip would take three days. So instead we must all ‘hold it in’, cutting ourselves from our the messages that our bodies tell us.
The same is true of the family which my client comes from. Many children. Harried parents. A culture which indoctrinates towards sameness and ostracizes difference. In a world like that who has time for feelings? Who has time for inconvenient truths spoken by the heart. ‘Onward!!’, she was told again. Onward towards where? To a place whose entry fee was the cruelest kind of amputation: the person from herself.
A bit of a digression.
As I write these post I’m on my way to Meron, the location of the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (you can read about him here). Hoping to skip the crowds next week (it’ll be Lag BaOmer which you can read about here), I decided to make my pilgrimage a week early. While this isn’t the place for a discussion of the mystical dimensions of this pilgrimage (and visits to the burial sites of other saints and sages) it is an opportunity to touch on culture and cognition.
Culture is universal. Wherever you find two humans you’ll find culture. Manifestations of culture are nearly infinite. My pilgrimage to the grave of a culturally designated saint is not unique; people the world over visit similar sites. And there are many other kinds of cultural pilgrimages too: cinco de mayo in Spain and Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland come to mind. Sporting events are also cultural pilgrimages. As are festivals and annual gatherings.
So the question we need to ask is what is all of this culture about? Why do humans have his need to abandon all sense and sensibility, their jobs, their families, and the opprobrium of their normal lives and go nuts?
For me the answer begins with something I heard from Dan Siegal, a developmental psychiatrist, in an interview a few years back on Shrink Rap Radio (an excellent resource which you can find out more about here). Siegal was speaking about the mind as a process (as opposed to a thing) which regulates the flow of information within the organism and with other organisms. At one point he said something that still makes my ears ring:
Yes, I study the way energy and information flow is shared in relationships across generations. That’s what culture is!
The implications of that idea is that culture is what one generation tells another. Culture teaches ideas (we call that indoctrination) that are central to the continuation of that culture. So while pilgrimages to holy sites of every ilk fulfill our needs for belonging, entertainment, and so much more, they are primarily about absorbing the ideals of those who came before us.
And as cognitive therapists who assert that the ideas that we hold are what makes us or break us, our clients’ culture is enormously relevant.